Review: How I Live Now (2013)

Directed by - Kevin Macdonald
Written by - Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni & Penelope Skinner
Based on the novel of the same name by Meg Rosoff
Starring - Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird & Danny McEvoy

This latest foray into straight narrative cinema for director Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, The Last King of Scotland) brims with a potential that is never properly realised, resulting in a film that is aimless, muddled and uneven. An adaptation of the popular novel of the same name, How I Live Now trudges through a mishmash of incompatible genres as it attempts to spice-up a rather generic love story by setting it against a wartime backdrop that often feels awkward and misplaced, even though it can – at times – be incredibly affecting. The result is a film that looks fantastic (hats off to Franz Lustig, who delivers some cracking cinematography all the way through) but one that lacks both personality and meaning.

How I Live Now’s main focus is on Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Byzantium), an angsty American teenager who has been sent to the English country to spend the summer holiday with her cousins, much to her consternation. After developing a crush on her eldest cousin Eddie (George MacKay; For Those in Peril, Sunshine on Leith), Daisy’s entire World is turned upside down when London falls victim to a nuclear attack. After moving into the family barn and having incestuous sex with Eddie multiple times (more on that later…), Daisy and her youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird, a.k.a the voice of Peppa Pig) are separated from Eddie by the military and spend the last hour of the film doing everything they can to try and find him again.

The film falters from the start because the character of Daisy, though brilliantly played by Ronan, is very clichéd. She isn’t all that likable, even after attempts are made to explain her reluctance to socialise (through a “self-help” style internal monologue that is intriguing but, like so much else in the film, is chronically underexplored) and you can predict pretty much all of the beats of her evolution long before they happen. Her relationship with the other teenagers is realistic enough, and the other teenagers themselves are well-written and well-acted (the film’s true star is Isaac, played marvellously by The Impossible’s Tom Holland) but there’s a stereotypical nature to much of what they say and do that I found really jarring.

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I think the film’s biggest problem, however, is that the source material from which it takes its inspiration tries to combine two stories that just don’t complement each other at all. The melodrama that accompanies the “Mills & Boon”-esque teen romance sits so uncomfortably with the severity of the film’s dystopian, Threads-inspired setting that it often feels like we’re watching two different films that have been thrown into a blender to create a rather lacklustre cinematic meal. Through the two separate stories the film attempts to juggle a number of ideas about the power of teenage love, the harshness of war and everything in between, even dabbling in some terribly misplaced supernaturalism. Alas, none of these ideas are explored in real depth and as such the film manages to feel simultaneously bloated and empty.

It’s a shame too because hidden beneath all the pap there’s a genuinely striking story. Once the onset of war is established, the film does not shy away from shining a torch into some of the darkest recesses of humanity and Macdonald does a fine job of establishing a real sense of hopelessness and dread immediately after the attack on London, which permeates throughout the rest of the film. As the situation descends further into chaos and anarchy, the film takes the audience down a pretty harrowing path full of death, misery and destruction that, at least for a time, is pretty unrelenting. Unfortunately, thanks to the mawkish romance story lingering away in the background, this gritty realism simply cannot be maintained.

How I Live Now - 2013

And therein lays the problem. No matter how dark the film gets, you can’t shake the fact that it’s all little more than a rather self-obsessed love story. The realism is done a disservice by the film’s normalisation of incest (by which I mean the relationship poses little to no problem for either of the characters involved, resulting in a real lack of moral dilemma) and the strange supernatural undertones that often rear their head unannounced. As far as I know the novel stresses that some of the characters are telepathic but the film never clarifies this. As a result the romance feels very “airy-fairy”; Daisy listens to her dreams and the voices inside her head and, as such, we are left with an uneasy juxtaposition between the grim reality of the military situation and a “connection” between the lovers that is suggested but never clarified, thus resulting in a film that often threatens to descend into total superficiality.

Nevertheless, How I Live Now does have a certain charm and I think it deserves credit for those moments when it is quite gritty. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be so it meanders about in the ether for far too long, dancing with so many ideas that it starts to fall to pieces under the weight of its own ambition, yet the powerful performances of the five teenagers and the stunning cinematography go a long way to delivering some form of salvation. When the screenplay is good (which isn’t often, but it has its moments) it’s very good and though the quick and easy conclusion borders on nauseating, just enough pessimism is maintained to prevent that from becoming too much of a problem.

Ultimately it’s tough to suggest an audience for this film; its market is clearly narrow in that I can’t see it appealing to anybody who isn’t a love-struck teenager or a menopausal woman, yet there’s a lot of potential that I wish had been more effectively utilised. I don’t think How I Live Now is necessarily a bad film, I just think it’s very disappointing.

★★½

Review also posted on Letterboxd